Originality in writing: What’s the big deal?

As a writer, I have long felt like it was my responsibility to remain an original writing voice in the world. It’s a lesson we learn at an early age in school, finding your voice through your writing.

But as the years pass and the competition in the industry is amplified, every writer has to make a difficult choice: Follow the proven, successful storytelling strategies that seem to sell to a broad audience, or remain a unique, singular voice? For many, the decision can be very difficult to make.

Writing in an original style is a risk. Will it resonate with readers? Will publishers and agents be impressed? There also seems to be a negative connotation around the term “literary” books. People see them as boring or slow or deep or depressing — not always the type of book we’d like to settle down with after a long day at work.

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What interested me was the explanation the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program uses for the portfolio work it accepts from applicants:

The reason we tend to have relatively few dedicated genre writers in our program at any given moment is simple: we are most interested in vital, singular voices—writers producing work that only they could produce. Meanwhile, genre writing—by definition, at least in its most straightforward form— tends to adhere to clearly established tropes and conventions.

Is that just an elitist attitude from academia, or is it a valid argument? Maybe a little of both.

So I’ll ask you: Do you try to be more original or to deliver to readers what they want? There are certainly pros and cons for each strategy. It’s a dilemma I’ve wrestled with for years now — remain writing literary books, like I did with Between Two Slopes and Somewhere More Than Free, or find a genre niche. I’ve certainly been inspired to write both types of novels over the years.

But to this point, I have yet to brave the world of genre fiction. What say you?

As a writer, what type of book do you most enjoy writing?

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As a reader, what genre of book do you most enjoy reading?

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  1. The way it sounds to me, they’re more interested in conformity rather than the individual. The giants of the different genre’s didn’t conform, they broke down the walls and did their own thing. Sometimes it took things in a whole different direction, but that’s how we stay valid.

  2. What about literary + genre fiction? Sometimes the boundaries are not so clear, at least not for me.

    Regarding whether I could write what other, successful writers are writing, I think I would to an extent – the extent being the limit between making the book more appealing to more readers and turning my book into a clone.

    Great post.

    1. Good point! The most successful authors, I’d say, were certainly able to take the depth and uniqueness of a literary novel and combine it with the excitement of genre fiction.

  3. There are sci-fi writers who can hold their own against any great literature. Writing in any genre can, if it mixes in some big questions about society or ethics.

    I guess I always knew that genre lit for pure entertainment sold well, but I walked out of grad school with one major self-imposed pressure: I could never attempt to publish something that didn’t cross over into what I learned the industry was calling lit fic. I mean, that sold, too, right? Weren’t there literary critics out there and isn’t that the kind of thing book clubs and educated folks read?

    Then again, I snatch up all the Star Trek novels. But mostly I will read any genre if the writer gives a little extra. I know they’re out there, both established and first-publishing. Some (like Claire McCague and Walter M. Miller Jr.) are one-hit wonders.

    I’m not exactly getting rich in my day job but so far I haven’t bowed to the pressure to get-it-done-and-out-there: nope, not until I think it’s ready. But I’m also the first to admit, there are some very useful writing guru blogs, and I don’t care if they’re helping to churn out savvy best-selling genre writers; they’re giving me a lot to think about, too.

    1. I think every writer should move at his or her own pace, and I believe there can certainly be cases made about genre fiction writers being as talented and unique as literary writers.

      Several months ago I read an article arguing that Stephen King was one of the most talented writers of all-time — not just a best-selling genre novelist, but truly a voice that could stand up against any writer of his generation. I’ve never been a much of a horror fan, and thus haven’t read much King (so I can’t argue in his favor), but I definitely believe that there are similar arguments to make for the best genre authors out there.

      Anyone who masters his or her craft is someone to respect.

      1. I’ve not read much King, either, except to know his “On Writing” is a must-read. But it does seem that he fulfills the lit fic requisite “provides commentary upon society” and/or “philosophically addresses the condition of humanity”–I think he just doesn’t always say what people want to hear. But throw in the fact that he renders with honesty slices of American Life and, yeh, I see him occupying a place in American Classics.

  4. Very interesting post! What I like to read isn’t necessarily what I can write. I’m kind of in the middle between literary and genre with a love of detail, but certainly don’t write to fit into a genre – there has to be more freedom in the process for me. Then when the novel is finished I can decide where it might be suited best.

    Stephen King is someone I can read to free up my own writing, although he is classed as horror, he develops his characters so well, and I find reading him compulsive. If I’d been told a few years ago, that I would become an SK fan, I’d never have believed it – as they say. It was through a friend, whose opinion I respected, that I first read him. And yes, On Writing, is brilliant. Thanks for the post, Ed!


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